30 Day Challenges… Day 3
Continuing the football challenge, day 3 is “A Match That Makes You Happy”. That would be a 0-0 game then!
I’ve been fortunately enough to travel away in Europe to see Celtic play. Now, I say fortunate, but a lot of the time it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, I’ve never actually seen us win on the continent! Our away record has been quite appalling in recent years. But there is one place that I have yet to see Celtic lose. That place in Barcelona.
I’ve actually seen us play Barcelona twice in the Camp Nou – and both games came in 2004. The second game came in the Champions League group stages where we managed to get a 1-1 draw. That was despite going a goal down. Funnily enough, to date it’s still the only away Champions League point we’ve managed to get. But that’s not the game that makes me happy. The first game is the one that does that.
March 2004 – two months after the game from Day 1 – and Celtic were still in the UEFA Cup. We’d knocked out Teplice from the Czech Republic and had been drawn against THE form team in Europe. Barcelona had started the season in a mess. Frank Rijkaard was the new manager and after an awful start which had seen them close to the relegation zone he rallied them back up the table. They would eventually finish as runners up thanks to a wonderful string of results where they pretty much beat everyone they faced.
Pretty much, that is, except for Celtic.
They came to Celtic Park, they lost 1-0. We had our goalkeeper Rab Douglas sent off for an incident in the tunnel at half time, which also saw one of their player sent off, and had to play the second half with a young kid named David Marshall in goals. Early in the second half Barca went down to nine men. Ten minutes later and we pounced, getting the only goal of the game thanks to Henrik Larsson taking their defence for a walk and leaving Alan Thompson to fire home from close range. Thanks to our extra man we held onto the lead for the rest of the game and I came out of the park bouncing. I couldn’t believe we’d beaten Barca.
If that was good, the trip to Barcelona was better. It’s a beautiful city and one I never got to see enough of, even though we spent two days there. We did the tour of the Camp Nou and even got to have my photo taking holding their replica European Cup aloft while wearing my hoops. I’d still have the photo as my profile picture everywhere if it wasn’t for the fact I look too young in it now!
For the game itself we were as high up in the Camp Nou as you can get. And that’s pretty high given the size of it. It holds over 100,000 people and has about five tiers! The actual action of the game I barely remember as I must have spent the ninety minutes watching through my fingers. Barca were all over us for large periods of the game. But Marshall – who was still in for the suspended Douglas – and young John Kennedy who was playing at centre half were absolutely fantastic that night. Didier Agathe had Ronaldinho in his pocket – he never got a sniff. Samuel Eto’o was the danger man for them.
I remember one bit of the game, near the end, where Stephen Pearson picked up the ball just outside his own box and sprinted away with it for most of the length of the park. I think he won us a throw in at their corner flag. The relief I felt just from that was phenomenal. As the time ticked away you started to believe that we could actually knock one of the biggest teams in Europe out of the UEFA Cup. But you didn’t want to believe it because you knew if they scored there was no way they wouldn’t go on and knock us out. It was that one sided.
I don’t usually like such negative tactics, but we had earned the right to hold onto what we had. And it wasn’t like we weren’t attacking – Barca were just better than us for most of the game. But they never did find their way to a goal and when that full time whistle went it was a cue for one of the biggest parties I remember being at. The Celtic support – most of whom were up in the top tier where I was, but some spread throughout other areas of the stadium – went mad. We got kept in for a while so as to clear out the home support safely, but no one cared. We just sang our hearts out until they let us go. And when they did let us go, I remember going down ramp after ramp after ramp singing chorus after chorus after chorus of Willie Maley. I don’t think my voice has ever properly recovered from that night.
I never got a chance to party with the fans for the rest of the night as our flight back was immediately after the game, but I was fine with that. So was my throat! We never went any further in the tournament as Villarreal knocked us out in the very next round. A couple of weeks later John Kennedy suffered a horrific knee injury that eventually ended his far too short career. David Marshall didn’t last at Celtic much beyond the end of the following season as he fell out of favour when Gordon Strachan came in. So while there was never a happily ever after following this game, the memories from that night in Barcelona will live with me forever. For it’s one game I can point to and say “see, Celtic CAN beat the best in the Europe”.